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On Empathy, Ethics, and Sharing Narratives

Empathy, both as a concept and as a practice, has been floating among my interactions and thoughts with an uncanny frequency these days. A few weeks ago, our YMEJ seminar watched a short animated video by Brene Brown, in which she discusses the power of empathy. She explains how empathy requires perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating these understandings.

Just a week or two after that, I was chatting with Sharieff, the coordinator of Enrichment Services at the ATD, where I have the privilege of doing my mentorship work. Sharieff had recently been talking about the links he saw between developing empathy and an understanding of ethics, and shared an anecdote in which he asked the young people at the ATD if they would take or return an iPhone that they saw a woman leave on a Subway platform. He shared how many students would respond with “No,” but when asked why they wouldn’t take the item, they would explain how they “Didn’t want to get in trouble” or end up with another alternative to detention sentence. I asked Sharieff how he might further the dialogue there; sure enough, he responded by saying: “Oh, I’ve found it’s all about building empathy.”

He explained how he might engage a young person in that conversation to imagine how the person who owned the phone might feel when she saw it was gone. He talked about how this principle of being able to imagine someone else’s feelings of experiences has guided some of the young people he works with to develop their own contextualized understandings of ethics, and of what they consider ethical behavior to look like.

Sharieff’s example has given me a lot to reflect upon. It’s both exciting and challenging to consider how sharing personal stories can develop our ability to empathize with others’ lived realities. But how do we do that sharing in a way that honors the diversity of perspectives, learning styles, and forms of expression with which people feel most comfortable? Certainly, celebrating and using multiple modalities (from printed and spoken word to visual and performing arts) seems one way of doing so. The next, and perhaps more perplexing, consideration is where to go from there. How do we engage with and share narratives in ways that develop empathy among both speakers and listeners? Is that even a responsible goal to have? Perhaps the better question is simply: What does the narrative’s owner hope to feel, understand, or share with others in doing that sharing? How can we, as adults working with youth, pursue this sharing in a dialogical way that allows students to own their narratives and engage with ours?

I invite you to read Dutro & Bien’s 2013 article Listening to the Speaking Wound to consider how we may share narratives with and among youth. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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